Monday, April 25, 2011

Improvising Your Life

(Dobama Theatre is presenting Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation" through Sunday, May 15.)
Dobama Theatre ends its season with "Circle Mirror Transformation," a play so warm, humanistic and forthright that you wish it could date your sister. Playwright Annie Baker has come up with the interesting concept of replacing the Bible and Freud with the improvisational theater games of Viola Spolin. The play works as an updated version of "Marty," but instead of seeking companionship in a dance hall, its small-town, lonely denizens take a theater improv class. Set in a community center in Shirley, Vermont, "Circle" chronicles a summer session.

(Ernest Borgnine in the 1955 movie version of Paddy Chavefsky's "Marty.")
The playwright's clever conceit is to reveal the characters' lives through the process of Spolin's games. Baker is particularly adept at capturing the verisimilitude of thwarted lives: a recently divorced man; a high-school girl from an abusive family trying to find the courage to audition for her school's production of "West Side Story"; a kooky actress recovering from a toxic relationship; an aging hippie who never got over the '60s; and, as the teacher, one of those earth-mother Bohemians you can see at any table at Tommy's.

The play is sometimes done in by its own integrity. With dozens of glimpses into the theater process, the work doesn't develop in a conventional manner. Like eavesdroppers in a coffee shop, the audience is force to piece together the minutiae of the characters' lives. This is a process that can be frustratingly slow, but ultimately it pays off by making us privileged voyeurs.

Befitting the script, the cast is especially deft at capturing the universal pain of average people trying to crack the shell of their inhibitions. Director Juliette Begnier, an experienced local actress, shows great sensitivity in finding the delicate pain and joy in this fragmented, but tender work. If you happen to spot someone nearby sans wedding ring who seems to have been moved by the evening's proceedings, fly right to their side and make him/her your own.

Dobama Theatre presents "Circle Mirror Transformation" through Sunday, May 15. For tickets, call 216-932-3396.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Paradise Refound

(Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison in the original Broadway production of "Kiss Me, Kate.")
We all have our own special hopes for that Paradise at the end of the tunnel. Muslims dream of virgins, boozers envision hangover-free Martini guisers, fatties fantasize about Godivas that slim the hips, and ponytailed rockers yearn for a Beatles reunion. Then there are those esoteric Mermanites weaned on Sondheim and cast albums who imagine the pearly gates as the entrance to the Alvin Theatre circa 1941.

In this Paradise Refound, Dante has given way to Cole Porter, and here the Broadway spectaculars, raped by Hollywood vulgarians, play in unmiked original-cast perpetuity. In the Art Deco lounge, the TV spectaculars that once delighted Aunt Flo have returned to again spread their kinescope ecstasies. If this be your impossible dream, light the candles and hop in your surrey with the fringe on top. For three musical holy grails have been unearthed and refurbished on DVD. Those of you who remember MGM's surprisingly well-made and faithful "Kiss Me Kate" in 1953 may think of its leads, Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, as the equivalent of good, solid technicolor sirloin steak. Five years after the movie, the Hallmark Hall of Fame restored the show's original comma and Broadway leads. If caviar could sing and emote, it would be the performances that Patricia Morison and Alfred Drake gave on the television adaptation of this show in 1958, a decade after its Broadway premiere. Although sadly cut to 78 minutes, every moment reminds us of the delight that the archeologists must have felt when they found the glories that lay hidden for centuries in King Tut's Tomb. Aside from the two leads, we have jazz diva Julie Wilson's incorrigibly naughty take on Lois Lane singing "Tom, Dick or Harry" and Jack Klugman brushing up his Shakespeare a few months before he would join Merman in "Gypsy." Anyone raised on distant legends of Broadway sophistication will find this DVD a key to a lost civilization of giddy elegance.

On a more bizarre note, we have an unlikely meeting of three legends in a 1953 TV production of "Anything Goes." The idea of Frank Sinatra, the idol of saddle-shoed millions, ardently wooing Broadway's own belting Bruennhilde (Ethel Merman) with Porter-ish ardor seems surrealistic beyond the dreams of Groucho. Add to this Dorothy's own Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) joining his former "DuBarry Was a Lady" co-star for an interpolated performance of "Friendship." What we have here is the ultimate happy talk - a dream come true.

To top off our triumvirate, imagine a Sondheim-penned episode of "The Twilight Zone" populated by the original Mother in "Life With Father" (Dorothy Stickney), the cinematic Liesl from "The Sound of Music" (Charmian Carr) and a crooning Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). It's called "Evening Primrose," which aired once on ABC's Stage 67 in 1966. Needless to say, fascinating.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Legacy of the Light-Fingered

(Michelle Duffy, right, as Olivia, confers with Lenny Van Dohlen, as Voltaire, in the Cleveland Play House production of Karen Zacarias' "Legacy of Light." Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
The Cleveland Play House is on the verge of painting its wagon and hitting the Euclid Avenue trail to its new Allen Theatre digs at PlayhouseSquare. Its final production finds the company in a self-congratulatory state of mind, paying tribute to its own Lady Bountiful - Roe Green. Following the advice of that great oracle, Dolly Levi, Green is "spreading money around like manure to help young things grow." In this case, her fertilizer is providing scholarships for fledgling playwrights. Judging by the Play House's current production, Karen Zacarias' "Legacy of Light," this fund is sorely needed to cultivate a better class of play.

God knows, as playwright-in-residence at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and instructor of playwriting at Georgetown University, Zacarias is no novice. Yet the work on stage at the Play House, a "metaphysical" farce spanning two centuries, depicting the plight of two female scientists and graced by the presence of the ghost of Voltaire, shows a penchant for cerebral whimsy and winking ethics lessons that would only be forgivable through your freshman year. Listing the play's grievous sins would consume more than its actual length. But most offensive of all to this audience member is a work that contains the ghost of Voltaire with constant, smug references to "the best of all possible worlds" and yet not a single mention of the greatest posthumous boon ever bestowed on a French philosopher's reputation, Leonard Bernstein's magnificent musicalization of "Candide."

We must admit that director Bart Delorenzo, set designer Takeshi Kata and costume designer David Kay Mickelsen imbue the production with the cheerful plushness of a Martha Stewart layout. The falling Newton apples and Little Bo Peep bodices offer lagniappes to atone for the script's falls from dramatic grace. As to the cast, all second Broadway leads, their Juilliard training is on evident display and they all bear finely tuned bodies and voices that make the peek-a-boo, Beaumarchais-like sex scenes a pleasure unto themselves.

(A scene from the current Broadway production of "Arcadia" by Tom Stoppard - Karen Zacarias' obvious muse.)
 However, the real ghost that haunts the play is not a dead French philosopher but a very-much-alive British playwright, Tom Stoppard. It's ironic that a writer who has made a career of playing with a variety of poets, including Shakespeare and Wilde, finds himself so blatantly imitated. On the Play House stage are constant references to Stoppard's gleeful use of the illustrious deceased, fixation on science and echoes of torrential wordplay. We feel he would not consider this play to be the sincerest form of flattery. If Zacarias can be so obvious in her adulation of Stoppard, this gives me the courage to go back to that epic I've been toiling on for decades - "Pussy on a Glass Streetcar."

"Legacy of Light" runs at the Cleveland Play House through Sunday, May 1. For tickets, call 216-795-7000.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Vic and Will for the masses

(Michael Redgrave as Jack and Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism  in the 1952 film version of "The Importance of Being Earnest.")

If we defer to the dictates of Oscar Wilde's inimitable governess and authoress manque, Miss Prism, concerning the nature of literature, "The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means," then we must regard Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's bombastic, anthem-laden 1985 musicalization of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" - at PlayhouseSquare through April 17 - as a worthy endeavor. For its larger-than-life tenor hero, Jean Valjean, peddles nobility, kindness and redemption with the fervor that the Marlboro Man once endorsed smokes. His interminable goodness drives his sanctimonious nemesis, Javert, to suicide, enables him to hit ungodly high notes and causes him to spread enough sunshine to give all of Paris sunstroke.

Just around the corner at the Hanna Theatre, Great Lakes Theater Festival, for some esoteric reason, is presenting Shakespeare's "Two Gentlemen of Verona." This is one of those frustrating early works that shows us the messy, nascent stirrings of what would develop into genius. Parading as a comedy, it is as dark and vicious as any ABC mini-series and demonstrates that the shallow machinations of yuppies is as eternal as halitosis. And it fails to live up to Miss Prism's standards, for the bad or eternally insipid end up in what we assume to be wedded bliss.

(The touring production of "Les Miserables" is at PlayhouseSquare.)
 The latest tour of "Les Miz" proclaims itself as a reinterpretation, but for those of you energized by the original's blend of kitsch, pseudo-opera aspirations and "Masterpiece Theatre" grandiosity need have no fear. The only significant alteration is the removal of the turntable so poetically immortalized in "Forbidden Broadway's" peerless spoof. Those with a keen ear might detect a slightly leaner and more classical orchestration, which reduces the sonic thickness. However, this audience member had the misfortune of being in dangerous proximity to the speakers, which made everything sound more shrill than it needs to be. The cast, loaded with understudies the night I attended, ranged from piercing to ineptly earnest, with the exception of Andrew Varela's vigorous Javert and Ron Sharpe's affecting Valjean. However, even with the slight remixing of ingredients, "Les Miz" still brings to mind the cheap, but overpowering tang of Old Spice.

(David Anthony Smith as Launce and his canine companion Mojo in Great Lakes Theater Festival’s production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Hanna Theatre. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
Someone with a long memory at Great Lakes has noted that back in the 1970s, the rarely performed "Two Gentlemen of Verona" achieved surprising success as a do-your-own-thing ode to free love and Afros. With an infectious score by Galt McDermot (of "Hair" fame) and John Guare, this almost forgotten work took on a new reason for being. Trading on this idea, Great Lakes has taken the original script, add some jazz numbers and directed it to seem like another Friday night of swinging singles at Nighttown. The most optimistic thing you can say about a Charles Fee production of a Shakespeare comedy is the absence of bilious Three Stooges chicanery. The cast is proficient enough to make every line ring true and clear. But only two members of the cast give performances that can possibly endure past curtain calls. One of them is a homosapien, namely David Anthony Smith, as Launce, a trouble-making Shakespearean servant. The other, a glorious newcomer with an obvious pedigree, happens to be a purebred Newfoundland named Mojo in Shakespeare's only canine role. Together, Smith and Mojo have that chemistry you see in such enduring human-animal teams as Liz Taylor and Lassie and Wilbur and Mr. Ed. However, for those parched Bard-a-thons, even Shakespeare Lite makes for a nourishing brew.

"Les Miserables" runs through Sunday, April 17 at the Palace Theatre at PlayhouseSquare. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

"Two Gentlemen of Verona" runs through Saturday, April 23 at the Hanna Theatre. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Broadway babies and Cleveland panties

(Daniel Radcliffe and Tammy Blanchard in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.")
Fortunately, musical rhapsodies to the glories of the Big Apple far outnumber those to Cleveland, land of the gauche anthems. At the forefront of these valentines are Kander and Ebb's "New York, New York," written for Liza Minnelli, and the opening to Leonard Bernstein's "On the Town." If you pledge your fidelity to original-cast renderings, New York is a "helluva town." If your taste runs more to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer technicolor, it's a "wonderful town." Either way, all this delicious musical froth periodically reminds us that we have to shuffle off from Cleveland-style deli to the banks of Manhattan in order to accrue knock-off purses in Chinatown, dine at Art Nouveau, Gigi-esque bistros and spend your annuity on original Broadway cast ambrosia.

Following in the footsteps of my New Testament predecessor, I will dispense some sage wisdom to my 12 followers (and whoever else may be peeking). First and foremost, forget about "The Book of Mormon." It's this decade's "The Producers," and any attempt to score tickets will cause untold humiliation waiting in cancellation lines, being mocked by condescending box-office personnel and losing your lucre, which could be better spent on weekly once-in-a-century bargains at that miracle on 34th Street, Macy's. Instead, you can achieve far more economical ecstasy by attending two sublime drag routines, one by a man (Brian Bedford) and one by an actual woman (Tammy Blanchard).

We, of course, define drag as the essence of caricaturing the foibles of a gender. Ironically, Oscar Wilde wrote the most savvy and perfect of English-language comedies in "The Importance of Being Earnest" and then was done in by the most unsavvy dictates of Victorian morality. Any well-acted production of "Earnest" would be worth the airfare to New York. But seeing Bedford, corseted and feathered, as Lady Bracknell would be worth your weight in gold, no matter how much you've cheated on your diet.

(Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest.")

Bedford's gender-hopping is far more than a stunt. It is one of the comic performances of a lifetime. He quivers with the indignation of Margaret Dumont being goosed by Groucho, outdoes even the great Jack Benny in feminine exasperation and positions his mouth to suggest Olympian distastefulness, showing that he has been studying hundreds of kinescopes of Milton Berle drag routines. Every imperious move and swish of his skirt evokes the comic perfection that we dream of at the Comedie-Francaise. Beyond acting, Bedford has directed one of the most performed of comedies with new insights, eschewing the expected cliches of over-dandified heroes and Victorian puppets. One of the boons of technology is that superb stage productions no longer have to disappear into the ether of time. If you are not fortunate enough to catch this gift to the gods of comedy in person,  you can experience it at your local movie theater in June.

Director-choreographer Rob Ashford is proficient in an overstated Vegas manner. But his rambunctious vulgarity cannot do in the joys of the classic "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." No, Daniel "Harry Potter" Radcliffe does not have the wattage that Robert Morse radiated as the lead in the original 1961 production. If Morse was the human embodiment of a Hirschfeld caricature - all flashing eyes and impish smile - Radcliffe scores with a more subdued, Charlie Brown-like plaintiveness. Unlike Morse, he may not create lifetime memories, but his singing and dancing are more than winning.

What this second-row-center viewer will enshrine until senility is the crocodile smile of Tammy Blanchard as Hedy La Rue, the 60s variation on the ultimate man trap. Anyone who's seen Barbara Stanwyck play a stripper or Marilyn Monroe a gold digger will relate to this knowing spoof on sex: the self-loving twinkle as she reduces men to jelly and the radiating, palpable satisfaction as each hip twitch lands home. She pulls off the tightrope walk of making calculation lovable. Even a merely good revival of  "How to Succeed" - with its great Frank Loesser score the apogee of musical-comedy wit - will still show up most of what passes for Broadway levity today.

(Aaron Tweit and stewardesses in "Catch Me If You Can.")
The most audacious thing in "Catch Me If You Can" happens in the first five minutes, when a chase at the airport freezes and the fugitive hero comes forth to plead that a story can be re-rendered as a television spectacular - perhaps the most blatant subterfuge to turn a non-musical film into a song-and-dance show. This is one of those works that falls into the category of after-dinner mint - as forgettable as it is professional. With a score by "Hairspray's" Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, it has the same pizazz and amiability as its predecessor, as well as the feeling of an all-too-soon revival.

(Robin Williams in "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.")
Because "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" was written by a Cleveland-bred playwright, was on the Pulitzer short list and stars Robin Williams as the tiger, you may feel compelled to see it. It is another in a long line of plays that have been inspired by this generation's theatrical guru, Tony Kirshner. Yes, Williams is ferocious and funny as the ghost of a departed tiger. For those who prefer metaphysics over flesh-and-blood characters and can find pleasure in imagery worthy of Gauguin, you should be well satiated. But for those old bores who still subscribe to the well-made play with protagonists you like or identify with, you may feel your time could have been more wisely spent gazing at Rembrandts at the Frick. To be frank, perhaps because I sat in a seat made for the proportions of Mickey Rooney (and I'm well over 30), it seemed to this audience member a rather chilly but well-crafted artifact of a distant civilization called youth.

(Katie Nabors as Louis Maske in "The Underpants" at the Beck Center. Photo by Kathy Sandham.)
For those of you who do not have the plane fare at the moment, Beck Center is presenting Steve Martin's adaptation of Carl Sternheim's 19th-century Teutonic farce, "The Underpants." Farce is all about the triumph of airy artificiality. Subsequently, it is as hard to concoct as a souffle and as easily prone to fall. A recent local example of a crestfallen souffle, "The Ladies Man" at Actors' Summit, left many in the audience scurrying out in search of Pepto Bismol. However, Beck Center has imported a master chef who has figured out an ingenious way to doctor up an old script. Director Matthew Earnest has come up with the cunning gimmick of italicizing the play's mechanical gears by utilizing German expressionism, ranging from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" to "The Threepenny Opera."

The characters are all painted in cadaver-like makeup and made to move and react like giant windup dolls. The style of acting evokes silent cinema and the ominous Grand Guignol of Sweeney Todd. The director is taking a big risk in alienating his audience with this technique, but it pays off royally. When the same work was done at the Cleveland Play House a decade ago, it played like rancid Neil Simon. Here the story of a comely German hausfrau whose panties fall in public, causing de rigueur complications of the genre, unfolds with the merry synchronicity of a giant German bell tower clock. It's an evening of joyous anarchy, proving that one can still find happiness in one's own back yard.

(Conrad Veidt in the the 1920 silent film, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.")
"The Underpants" runs at Beck Center through Saturday, April 23. For tickets, call 216-521-2540 or go to